Reflections by the Lakeside of the Goddess of Ghee

Explorer Suzanne Klotz on her 20 treks and the cultures she discovered in a nearly unknown region of the Northwestern Indian Himalaya.

I’m often met with blank stares when I tell people that I’ve gone to India twenty times in the last twenty-two years.  In this age of lightning-paced innovation where newness is valued above all else, “been-there-done-that” is the motto and global travelers are always on the lookout for travel’s “next big thing.”  The thirst for thrill and one-off adventure is so unquenchable that Virgin Galactica is promoting rocket-powered pleasure flights to outer space, the ultimate far-flung destination.  With new hot spots constantly “being discovered” on earth and now potentially in the stars, why would one willingly subject oneself to India, one of the more daunting places to travel, twenty times?   

People presume that I’m as peripatetic as the rest of the globe-trotting tribe.  They ask me rhetorically, “You move around to different places in India, don’t you?  You don’t just visit the same place?”  When they learn that I visit the same region each time, one so obscure that it falls off the ordinary tourist map, they assume that I’m a “spiritual traveler” returning to my guru’s ashram or a serious practitioner of yoga.  In fact, I don’t have a guru, I gave up yoga years ago when it hurt my back, and I’m unsure of what “spiritual” means.  

I return to the same region time and again because I’m exploring it.  For me, that means trying to understand the place in a profound and textured way and, one day, break through into its real culture.  I’m doing this the good old-fashioned way – studying timeworn maps to plot out journeys that will take me ever deeper into the region, traveling (sometimes regretfully) by foot to places that roads don’t reach, chatting with people in their own language about how they live and what they believe, and just being there, watching and listening.   

The region I’m exploring is the northwestern Indian Himalaya, which is my short-hand for a maze of high ranges -- the Siwalik, Dhauladhar, Pir Pinjal and Great Himalaya -- that rise up out of India’s great Gangetic plains.  These ranges stretch, fortress-like, across the northwestern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, with the summit of Gya standing nearly 23,000 feet and still unclimbed.  The northwestern Indian Himalaya made international headlines in June when devastating flash floods struck the Kedarnath Temple in the mountains of Uttarakhand.  As one Indian friend ironically pointed out, the Kedarnath Temple is dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, and he certainly had his way in Uttarakhand.  This news reinforced an image of the Himalaya as a battleground between man or woman and nature at her most savage.  Imagining that I’m trying to test myself against these formidable mountains, people inevitably ask me how high I go.  In truth, I’ve gone pretty high for a trekker with no technical mountaineering expertise, about 18,500 feet (where conditions are pretty rough).  But going high, though exhilarating and something I once cared about, is not why I’m exploring.      

These days I’m more interested in the labyrinth of lovely valleys nestled in these ranges and their cultural and religious traditions.  These traditions are staggeringly old and may predate written history in India, which began around 1700 B.C.  Although “Hindu” in name, they fall far outside the more mainstream Hinduism practiced in the Indian plains, with its ancient Sanskrit scriptures, high-minded notions of karma, reincarnation, and transcendence, and pantheon of India-wide gods.    

The mountain (“pahari”) culture of these valleys revolves around a different spirit world that’s crowded, colorful, earthy and local.  It’s inhabited by thousands of gods and goddesses known as “devtas” who draw upon the very archetypes from which myths are made.  There are snake gods, dark harmful goddesses, divinely inspired sages, and mythical warriors of superhuman strength.  Unlike the bodhisattvas of Buddhism who liberate mortals from the cycle of death and rebirth, the devtas’ concerns are immediate and down-to-earth.  They grant rain for crops and relief from physical disease or mental illness caused by demonic possession or retribution by an angry spirit.  Like divine potentates, they dole out advice on community affairs and resolve legal disputes.  They speak assertively and sometimes angrily through human oracles known as “gurs,” who pitch and shake as the gods enter their bodies, flip off the head caps they customarily wear, and stroke the long locks of hair they are forbidden to cut.  

These quirky gods are worshipped in stunning carved wooden temples that punctuate the mountain landscape.  One real jaw-dropper, the Great Tower of Chaini, stands over 147 feet high (think thirteen stories) in a tiny hamlet that’s a two-hour hike from the nearest road.  These temples showcase the talents of generations of skilled woodcarvers and the plentiful deodar or Himalayan cedar, a wood so durable that it’s considered sacred. 

 Penelope Chetwode, the intrepid daughter of the Commander-in-Chief in India under the British Raj, documented these temples in her 1972 book, Kulu – The End of the Habitable World.  It describes her foray on mule-back from Shimla, the summer capital of British India, replicating a nostalgic journey she took as a young adult in 1931.  She raves about one temple as having some of the finest pahari folk art she ever saw in the hills. 

Since Chetwode, the pahari traditions have been largely overlooked by the international travel writing community and only a handful of anthropologists and archeologists have closely studied them.  The sheer difficulty in getting to the region is a major reason for their obscurity.  Until the 1990’s foreign nationals needed an “inner line permit” to enter the Satluj River Valley, called the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” by an awestruck English journalist in 1873.  A permit is still required to enter areas close to the sensitive Indo-Tibetan border, where India has had continuing skirmishes with China.  While it’s no longer necessary to ride mule-back into Chetwode’s beloved “Saraj” region, which I use as my base, the trip overland from Shimla is long, arduous, and harrowing.  The Saraj is a good day’s drive from Shimla on National Highway 22, which is blasted into the mountainside and regarded as one of the deadliest motorways in the world.  At the end of the motorable roads, you still have to hike steeply up and down rugged mountain trails to reach the villages, hidden in the mountains, where pahari culture really thrives.  There people can be seen doing things the way they’ve always done them -- “the way they’ve been done since my grandfather’s and grandfather’s father’s time” – except that now they have cells phones tucked under their chins.   

People often inquire “how did you find out about this place?” and “how have you learned so much about it?”  (I’m an attorney, by day, in San Francisco and traipsing around the Indian Himalaya is not part of my line of work.)  I first set foot in these valleys over twenty years ago as a trekker in search of unspoiled Himalayan wilderness.  I was oblivious to the richness of the pahari culture around me and hurried through the villages, which I found less than pristine.  In my own defense, information about the culture was frustratingly scarce.  Villagers were reticent and didn’t speak English.  Guides were preoccupied with our safety and physical well-being.  Guidebooks didn’t fill in the blanks and barely touched upon the region except to mention a few well-trodden trekking routes.  After many years of trekking in the region, my mind was filled with glorious memories of ambling through fields of mountain wildflowers, drinking a cold sour lassi made from the fresh milk of a shepherd’s cow, and surveying the world far below from the thin cold air of a high mountain pass.  But I was no closer to understanding the culture around me than when I first started.  I was stumped.         

About seven years ago, when I was trekking in Uttarakhand, the veil of obscurity unexpectedly parted just enough to give me a glimpse of what I had been missing.  Torrential rain, which meant snow at the higher altitudes where we were headed, drove us down 6000 feet to a tea house that was the first sign of civilization in over a week.  A few bedraggled shepherds had also taken refuge in the tea house and were standing around a low fire warming themselves and speaking in muted voices.  The smoke from the fire stung my eyes, and I was disappointed that we wouldn’t reach the high lake that was our destination after ten days of hiking and slogging over two mountain passes.  My guide, Pyar (meaning “love”), joined in the fireside banter.  Normally a quiet self-composed man, Pyar grew visibly excited.  After a while, he turned and told me, with gravity in his voice, that a pandav lila was about to start in a village nearby. 

A pandav lila is a festival that takes place in the villages of the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, where we were trekking.  William S. Sax, the noted American anthropologist, describes it in his book, Dancing the Self: Personhood and Performance in the Pandav Lila of Garhwal (2002), which I stumbled upon a year earlier and hungrily read.  During the festival, villagers dramatize scenes from the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, whose stories and lessons of duty (“dharma”) are second nature to every Hindu.  The Mahabharata came to the attention of the Western public when physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted one of its more celebrated parts, the Bhagavad Gita.  After the first detonation of a nuclear bomb in the New Mexican desert, Oppenheimer ominously said, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  

Sax’s book piqued my curiosity, and my determination to see a pandav lila took root.  When we began our trek in the Garhwal, I showered Pyar with questions about the lila and expressed my desire to see one on a future trek.  Pyar was discouraging, not wanting to raise false hopes.  He told me that festival dates are rarely fixed far in advance and can change at the last moment.  It would be impractical, if not impossible, to organize a trip involving international travel around such an unpredictable event.  Naturally, we were left breathless by our discovery ten days later that a pandav lila was just hours away.  This was a consolation prize that would more than make up for the inclement weather that prematurely aborted our expedition. 

Early the next morning we set out in anticipation and arrived at the village three hours later.  The entire population of the village was sitting body-to-body on the hard stone floor of an open communal space.  Everyone was watching with rapt attention as the star players mimed their roles in jaunty folkish movements.  Immediately spellbound, I told Pyar not to worry about me and plunged into the crowd of villagers who were surprised at the sight of a Western woman in their midst.  The women and children, who sat separately from the men, happily made room for me and I sat with them for the next three days only to return to camp to sleep.  I was enthralled by what I saw, but there were many things I didn’t understand.  I was bewildered by a curious object that resembled a sedan-chair carried on long poles, like the human-powered litters that transported traditional Chinese brides to their weddings.  This palanquin, however, was not intended to carry a person.  Perched on the palanquin were small metal faces staring out through wide almond-shaped eyes with no pupil to fix their gaze.  Only later did I learn that these little faces or “mohras” represent the devtas and are objects of profound worship throughout Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.  The palanquin is the principal vehicle on which these sacred objects are transported when a devta is traveling.


This fortuitous incident was a watershed in my life.  It shifted the focus of my travels -- from trekking through the uninhabited wilderness to studying and documenting village life where I could see pahari culture up close.  It goaded me to scour Indian bookstores and scholarly websites for literature and pore over everything I could find.  With a determination that approached obsession, I chased down most of the places about which I had read, some of which were remote beyond belief.  

My travels took me to a rugged valley where the locals believe that their divine king is Duryodhana, the great anti-hero of the Mahabharata and an icon of evil for most Indians.  There I witnessed the unsettling sight of Duryodhana’s oracle entering into a trance, taking ritual axes in his mouth and dancing slowly, wielding a golden axe.  Another year, I joined a procession that climbed 5000 feet in one day.  (The descent the following day was the real killer.)  The mohra of an important regional devta was carried to a mountain peak where the devta and his entourage paid homage to a fierce female spirit, a “yogini,” who calls the peak home.  

Through this gradual accretion of knowledge, I came to understand what I had been seeing.  But I was propelled into another realm, where cultural barriers started to melt away, when I gained some proficiency in Hindi, a language widely understood in the mountains.  The pahari people are flabbergasted when I speak to them in that language (I can overhear them saying “she can speak Hindi”).  Once the initial shock wears off, they are eager to talk with me and genuinely hospitable.  With the language barrier out of the way, a vast sea of local information has opened up before me and I’m learning about and seeing things that probably no outsider has ever seen before.   

However, penetrating deeply into a foreign culture, especially one that’s interesting for the very reason that it’s different, is not without its moral dilemmas.  You’re bound to come face-to-face with beliefs that clash with the contemporary values of your own culture.  A case in point is the widespread belief in the mountains that animals must be ritually sacrificed to the devtas.  Goats are routinely sacrificed at religious festivals, although they are consumed after they meet their death.  Festivals sometimes culminate with the beheading of two male goats on a temple roof and the goats’ blood is believed to purify the temple.  When I witness these practices, I remind myself of the long history of animal sacrifice in India.  Animal sacrifice was practiced by the Aryan nomads who are thought to have migrated from the Central Asian steppes to North India around 1700 B.C.  They brought with them the horse, their pastoral way of life, and their gods of the sky, wind, fire and dawn.  Their rulers displayed their power and hegemony through an elaborate ritual that culminated in the sacrifice of a horse.  This tradition continued well after the birth of Christ and a great Gupta king performed a horse sacrifice in the 4th century A.D.  Some say that this rite was performed as late as the 11th century A.D.   


Fortunately, most of my experiences in the mountains delight me, rather than test the limits of my tolerance or raise philosophical issues of moral relativism.  I just returned from the Saraj where I saw astounding new things that I never heard or read about, and had no idea I would see.  A palanquin of mohras, its bearers and a train of priests and quaking oracles plunged into a scenic lake that’s the home of the Mata Budhi Nagin or “Old Snake Mother” – the Goddess of Ghee.  They bathed in the goddess’s holy waters and then circumambulated the entire lake, sometimes neck deep, to show their respect.  I owe this experience to a chance conversation I had with some locals in a ramshackle tea house near the Jalori Pass (10,500 feet).  With twenty visits to India under my belt, lots of unmediated communications with locals, and an inquiring mind, I no longer retrace the steps of others.  Now I’m clearing my own path and making my own discoveries.  That’s the real thrill of old-fashioned exploration.  







 An attorney by vocation, Suzanne Klotz studies and documents the village and tribal cultures of the northwestern Indian Himalaya, focusing on their unique religious traditions and indigenous wooden temple architecture.  Since little or no English is spoken in these regions, Suzanne has been studying written and spoken Hindi.  She has lectured about Himalayan culture in many venues in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Northern California Chapter of the Explorers Club, of which she is a member.  She will give her fourth lecture at Asian Art Museum of San Francisco on August 7, 2014.  

Copyright © Suzanne Klotz 2013